As newspapers face challenges, the importance of public support grows

January 16, 2020 12:15 am

Newspapers build strong, informed communities. Imagine Cleveland without the Plain Dealer journalists who uncovered the lead poisoning crisis and the rape kit backlog, forcing important reforms. Cincinnati Enquirer reporters, photographers and editors painstakingly depicted the mercilessness of the drug crisis and the toll it takes on nearly every aspect of life. The Columbus Dispatch exposed how middlemen hiked up prescription drug prices to get bigger reimbursements from Ohio’s Medicaid program.

The people who tell these stories work in the newsroom as reporters, editors, photographers and designers. In 2018, Ohio had 43 percent fewer of those jobs than in 2012. The industry as a whole had 58 percent fewer jobs in 2017 than it did in 2004. Between 2004 and today, 32 percent of Ohio’s newspapers — most of them weeklies — closed, according to Policy Matters Ohio.

An industry plagued by declining circulation and advertising revenues wouldn’t seem like a smart investment decision, but that’s not the way hedge funds see it. Struggling newspapers make easy targets for media conglomerates, especially those owned or managed by hedge funds. When a private investment company takes control of newspapers you can expect cutting, merging and consolidation as owners try to wring out every last drop of profit.

Ohio is ground zero for newspaper mergers and consolidations. That trend recently intensified with GateHouse Media — owner of the Columbus Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal and others — purchasing Gannett and taking on its name. Gannett previously owned the Cincinnati Enquirer and 10 other Ohio papers. GateHouse was owned by the publicly traded New Media Investment Group Inc. but managed by the $70 billion Fortress Investment Group. They have a clear playbook: consolidate, cut and outsource. So far, Gannett moved Dispatch printing operations to Indiana and Enquirer printing from Columbus to Kentucky. 

In Dayton, private equity firm Apollo Global Management recently purchased Cox Media Group, which owns the Dayton Daily News as well as several Ohio radio stations and TV stations around the country. A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule prohibits a company from operating a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same market (the 120-year-old Cox was grandfathered in), so last month Apollo announced plans to publish the Dayton Daily News just three days a week. This week, the FCC gave Apollo more time to find a buyer for its newspaper properties, which would allow them to keep publishing every day.

Ohio made national news over the summer when the locally owned Youngstown Vindicator couldn’t compete in a landscape dominated by mega companies and closed its doors. The name carries on, but only as an edition of the Warren Chronicle Tribune, which hired some Vindicator staff and bought the paper’s circulation list, domain name and masthead.

Study after study shows the dire consequences of losing newspapers. Local governments become less efficient and accrue more debt. Civic engagement and voter participation drop. In some cases, pollution even rises.

The internet, the rise of Craigslist and other online classifieds, and the loss of local business all combined to undermine newspapers’ business model, which was dependent on local ads. As circulation drops and more people get their news online, Facebook and Google rake in the profits – hoarding more than 60 percent of the $120 billion in digital ad revenue in 2018. People use these sites to share and access news, but newspapers aren’t getting much of the wealth.

The numbers look bleak, but lawmakers can help. Ohio legislators can preserve some local news by increasing support for public broadcasting, which has received long-time state support. An additional $5 million would be a good place to start. Ohio can follow New Jersey’s lead and form a publicly funded civic consortium to support local news through partnerships with educational institutions and community-based organizations. Federally, Congress should allow newspapers to more easily become nonprofits and should tax Facebook and Google. That revenue can fund the journalism that provides these sites with content they depend on — and serve as an antidote to the false reports they often help spread.

There are policy solutions. Those of us who care about democracy just need to demand them.

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Caitlin Johnson
Caitlin Johnson

Caitlin Johnson is the communications director for Policy Matters Ohio. Johnson is a former journalist and organizer who lives in Shaker Heights.